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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N046-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition founded by three American philosophers: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Starting from Alexander Bain’s definition of belief as a rule or habit of action, Peirce argued that the function of inquiry is not to represent reality, but rather to enable us to act more effectively. He was critical of the ‘copy theory’ of knowledge which had dominated philosophy since the time of Descartes, and especially of the idea of immediate, intuitive self-knowledge. He was also a prophet of the linguistic turn, one of the first philosophers to say that the ability to use signs is essential to thought.

Peirce’s use of Bain was extended by James, whose The Principles of Psychology (1890) broke with the associationism of Locke and Hume. James went on, in Pragmatism (1907) to scandalize philosophers by saying that ‘"The true"... is only the expedient in our way of thinking’. James and Dewey both wanted to reconcile philosophy with Darwin by making human beings’ pursuit of the true and the good continuous with the activities of the lower animals - cultural evolution with biological evolution. Dewey criticized the Cartesian notion of the self as a substance which existed prior to language and acculturation, and substituted an account of the self as a product of social practices (an account developed further by George Herbert Mead).

Dewey, whose primary interests were in cultural, educational and political reform rather than in specifically philosophical problems (problems which he thought usually needed to be dissolved rather than solved), developed the implications of pragmatism for ethics and social philosophy. His ideas were central to American intellectual life throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

All three of the founding pragmatists combined a naturalistic, Darwinian view of human beings with a deep distrust of the problems which philosophy had inherited from Descartes, Hume and Kant. They hoped to save philosophy from metaphysical idealism, but also to save moral and religious ideals from empiricist or positivist scepticism. Their naturalism has been combined with an anti-foundationalist, holist account of meaning by Willard van Orman Quine, Hilary Putnam and Donald Davidson - philosophers of language who are often seen as belonging to the pragmatist tradition. That tradition also has affinities with the work of Thomas Kuhn and the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Citing this article:
Rorty, Richard. Pragmatism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N046-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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